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The Other Side of Computing
by William Trimmer
Belle Mead Research, Inc.
Phone 908 359 0012, Fax 908 359 2094
58 Riverview, Hillsborough, NJ 08844 USA
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This is a portion of a presentation given at the "Conference on High Speed Computing - The Art of High Speed Computing" at the Salishan Lodge, Gleneden Beach, Oregon, USA, on April 20 to 23, 1998, organized by Los Alamos National Laboratory (Kathleen Hirons, Manuel Vigil, Ralph Carlson) under Department of Energy contract W-7405-ENG-36, LA13474-C, for copies phone 615 576 8401 (USA).

Computation takes us to a world of its own.  An intangible world where incantations create, modify, destroy, and build castles in the sky.  In this world huge power can be generated, information neatly trimmed for a purpose, and couriers sent to other castles at nearly the speed of light.

What computation and software can not do is interact with the real world.  Interaction with the tangible takes forces and photons and electromagnetic fields and sensors.  Information and computational ability is intriguing and of great utility, but it can not tie your shoe, or fry an egg.

The original ingenious and intelligent computing systems were mechanical, things such as clocks that chimed and displayed dancing figures on the hour.  Moving electrons in micro computers are now doing a superb job of providing the intelligence.  Complex calculations and decisions are inexpensive.  It is now the mechanical devices needed to interface electronics to the world that are expensive.

But things are about to change.

This talk discusses the proliferation of micro mechanical devices.  A complete gear system, or a motor, or a chemical sensor can be made that is 1/1000 the size and cost of a CPU or memory chip.  A revolution in our ability to interface computing power to the real world is about to begin.

Computation is to micro mechanical devices as Yin is to Yang.  One is soft and intangible, the other active and tangible.  The real promise is in their combination.


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  [Ref 1]

Alessandro Volta, an Italian Physicist (1745 to 1827), experimented with dissimilar metals in aqueous solutions, and found a weak source of current.  Andre Marie Ampere, a French Physicist (1775 to 1836), passed currents through wires and discovered the relationship between currents and magnetic fields.  Imagine now, if you can, these gentlemen walking through your house.  What wonders we take for granted.  Did their genius prepare them to comprehend the computer on your desk?

The world of science and engineering is still unfolding wonders.  One recent development is the ability to make micro mechanical devices.  Motors the diameter of a human hair and sensors the size of a grain of salt are enabling inexpensive systems that can interact with our world on a new scale.

Surprisingly, the time scale from conception to utilization has been collapsing.  Nikola Tesla and Thomas Alva Edison developed practical electric motors in the 1880’s, about a hundred years after Volta and Ampere’s work.  The micro comb drive motor was described in 1989, and is currently being used in automobiles as an airbag sensor.  This micro development took less than a dozen years from conception to full scale implementation.

There are several reasons for the rapid advances of micro devices (also called MicroElectroMechanical Systems, MEMS, micromechanics, Micro System Technologies, mst, and Micro Machines).  One, manufacturers of these micro devices are using well established technologies.  The electronics industry provides sophisticated process chambers for making micro comb drive motors and a host of other micromachined devices.  The machine tool industry has developed micro Electro Discharge Machining, EDM, techniques and single point diamond machining tools that can fabricate minuscule mechanical devices.  The plating and molding communities have enabled LIGA and other replication processes that can replicate extremely fine structures.  Two, there are a number of people skilled in these base technologies who are looking for new challenges.  And three, established companies and the investment community recognize the potential of new technologies.  The micro technologies are exploding forth using a well established infrastructure.

Volta and Ampere worked quietly in their labs.  Edison worked with a small group of researchers.  Currently I estimate there are 10,000 people working on micro-mechanical projects.  Much of this current effort is developing products.

While there are more things in the universe that one can imagine, we can push the boundaries.  Your help exploring the applications and engineering and science of micro devices is welcome.


Micromechanics is an extremely broad field, a field that will touch most aspects of our grandchildren's lives.  This field encompasses all of the current technologies -- only it is concerned with a smaller dimensional scale.  And micromechanics promises applications in all disciplines.  Richard Feynman well conveyed the excitement of our new discipline:

"I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless, and in which one can go down and down.  Such a man is then a leader and has some temporary monopoly in a scientific adventure.  Percy Bridgman, in designing a way to obtain high pressures, opened up another new field and was able to move into it and lead us all along.  The development of ever higher vacuum was a continuing development of the same kind.

"I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle.   This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, "what are the strange particles?" but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations.  Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

"What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale." [Ref 2]
The rest of this presentation is a derivative of the talk “Grand in Purpose, Insignificant in Size,” by William Trimmer, given at the Tenth Annual International Workshop on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems, Nagoya, Japan, January 26 to 30, 1997, please see page 9 of the proceedings.


1.  William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene V.

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